ballew classroom

Thoughts on a Flexible Classroom

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Last night, I posted a few pictures of my chair-less classroom and had lots of questions about my setup. In response, this is a post about flexible classrooms, particularly flexible seating. I say that up front because I want to back up a bit so that you know where I’m coming from, but I promise I’ll get there. Bear with me, will you?

I distinctly remember preparing for job interviews ten (really? TEN?) years ago and thinking about what I would say when asked about my strengths and weaknesses. They always ask about your strengths and weaknesses, don’t they? I wanted to be prepared so as not to fumble for things. The word I kept coming back to was flexible. It was very important to me that I communicated my flexibility, because I lean quite a bit towards a Type A personality. I like things to be neat and organized and to look beautiful. I didn’t want this aspect of my personality to make me come off as too rigid, because I knew even then that no teacher can survive without being flexible.

Fast forward to 2016, and I find myself continuing to deepen my understanding of what it means to be flexible. I believe that for flexibility to be transformative, we must make plans but not marry them. We must come to terms with the fact that the idea we have – no matter how perfect it may seem – is only one of many possibilities. It is so easy to fall into the trap of “This worked last year, so it’s the best plan for this year,” or “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” or even “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

These are commonly used phrases, but what if everyone relied on this mentality? What if, for example, Steve Jobs had looked at a cell phone and said, “It ain’t broke. Don’t fix it.” He wouldn’t have been wrong. There was nothing broken about my Nokia brick phone in 2002 or even my bag phone in 1997. But it certainly wasn’t much compared to what innovators like Steve Jobs believed it could be. It was he, after all, who said, “The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.”

I’m in the business of changing the world. We all are, aren’t we? My classroom is such a tiny part of the world, but it matters. So, I am changing my classroom because I can’t change the whole world in a day. I’m fully embracing flexible seating in a way that I never have before.

Last year, as I began experimenting with different seating options, I was amazed at how much more productive students were when they were in charge of choosing a spot that let them do their best work. I have always allowed freedom when reading or writing independently. Why did I think they needed to be sitting in desks and chairs for everything else? Why can’t students choose their seat for the entire day? What might happen if their seat wasn’t a seat at all, but a pillow, or a yoga ball, or a space with room to stand and move? At the end of the day, I couldn’t come up with enough reasons NOT to try this out, so here we are!

My classroom currently has five different seating styles plus unlimited spots on the floor or counters (a student favorite!). Students may choose from a yoga/stability ball, a one-legged stool, a standing table, a pillow seat at a desk with no legs, or a camping style chair with a lap desk. Here is a view of my classroom from the door that shows all of the furniture-based seating options. (I have added two more yoga balls at the pair of desks in the back since taking this picture.)


I only have a few ideas in my head about how we will manage the seating. The rest will be decided as a class. Here is what I know for sure:

  1. All students will choose a new type of seat each day until everyone has an idea of which one suits them best. I am asking students to try each kind before choosing a favorite because I imagine that many of them will be surprised by how much they do/do not like a certain choice.
  2. All students have choice, but I reserve the right to help you make a better one. If someone chooses a seat that causes them to do anything but their best work, I will move them. This is not to punish them, but to emphasize that the whole point of flexible seating is to increase your comfort and productivity, not to bounce all over the room. This right to move you extends to any adult, especially substitute teachers.
  3. Students will make their choice at the start of class, and stay put for the day. The novelty factor is huge here, but I want to keep learning at the focus of my classroom, not swapping seats.

I have high expectations for my students’ performance. Flexible seating doesn’t change that. It enhances it. Engagement is increased when we are comfortable. Focus improves when the seat meets our needs. How many times have you been forced to sit through a training on an uncomfortable chair? It’s all I can think about after a while!

As a bonus, here are a few other things that are an integral part of my classroom setup.

Community Supplies: I am a zealot for community supplies. I love how sharing behaviors are reinforced, I love that I can easily and quickly get supplies like scissors or glue sticks passed out AFTER giving directions so that students are digging in their supply bags for too many minutes, and okay fine, I LOVE HOW BEAUTIFUL THEY ARE, OKAY??


Scissors and Glue Sticks, plus crayons, thin and bold markers, and colored pencils sorted by color


Blank Bulletin Boards: For all of the ways I love to decorate my classroom, my favorite kinds of bulletin boards will always be blank slate bulletin boards. We will fill these together with anchor charts, student work, or any other evidence of the learning that happens in our room.



Strong Organizational Systems: Whether it’s a system for make up work (as seen above on the left side of the white board), for students leaving the room, for assigning jobs, or even for making sense of the chaos that is teacher cabinets, organization matters. The particular system being used is irrelevant – no one system is going to work for everyone – but having strong organizational systems in place makes every minute of the day run more smoothly.


Classroom Jobs


One of my cabinets


Students move their number over when they leave the room for any reason.


Drawers to organize weekly lessons and ideas by day and by subject

 Finally, here is the video I shared that led to this post. If you see something else in my room and have a question, just comment below! Most importantly, know that I am sending only the most positive vibes your way as you begin a new year!



A lot of work. And a lot of good. 

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For a variety of reasons, both within my control and outside of it, this has been an especially long week. I’d almost argue that I’ve lived ten days since Monday. Almost. 
The trouble with weeks that are particularly long and exhausting is that we spend so much time counting down to the weekend and wishing the hours away, it’s easy to miss all of the goodness that fills those long hours. But the goodness is there. When you spend your day with children, there is ALWAYS something good. 

So on this Friday evening, as I tuck away the week behind me, I’m wrapping it up in all of the goodness that happened. One particular conversation with a student makes a perfect example. I’m beginning a book study of “The Teacher You Want to Be” with my friend Rachel, and I was marking off the first section one day this week. One of my boys was working nearby, and the conversation with him went something like this:

Student: Is that the vocabulary teacher book? Are you checking the answers?

: No, this is a different kind of teacher book. It’s the kind you read to help you become a better teacher. 

Student (completely serious): Ugh. Throw that junk in the trash! You’re already a really great teacher!

JB: (Whilst trying to keep my heart from melting right out of my chest) Well, I’m glad you feel that way, but the only way to be a really great teacher is to never stop learning.

Student: (turning to walk away) Hmph. That sounds like a lot of work. 

Indeed it is, man. It is A LOT of work. Like a panic-inducing, mind-numbing, never-ending mountain of work that we teachers attempt to climb every single day. Some days, we even have to start at the bottom more than once. But every once in a while, for the most fleeting and miraculous of moments, we make it to the top of that mountain. Whatever you do, friends, don’t forget to savor those moments. Stop and enjoy the view, for the work returns and the climb must begin anew tomorrow. Teaching is a lot of work. But it’s also a whole lot of awesome. 



Change is hard. And necessary. And awesome. 

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Change isn’t exactly my favorite thing. Beginnings are scary, and endings are sad, and I’m often too impatient to give hope a chance to float up in the middle.

Despite my hesitation, some of my best learning experiences in life (learning to walk, riding a bike, learning to swim) began with letting go, so I’m doing my best to be brave as I take a leap out of all I’ve ever known in education and try something new.

I have learned a lifetime’s worth of knowledge in the last nine years in my current district as both a teacher and a literacy coach, and I will certainly leave a big part of my heart at Greene Elementary. But earlier today, I officially signed my new contract with a new school district, where I will be a 4th grade Reading and Writing teacher. I’m thrilled to go back to the classroom and apply all of the stellar training I’ve had over the last six years, and I’m equally terrified that I won’t have a clue what I’m doing once I get there.

My new school is breathtakingly beautiful, and it’s SO much closer to home. And perhaps best of all, my sweet friend Rachel (whose anchor charts have always been your favorites, according to my Pinterest data) will be right down the street wading through all of this newness with me. We got our email addresses and badges today. No going back now! #parkinglotselfie #changeisgood #hahajkchangeishard

I’m not going away, but this page may change directions a bit. I honestly haven’t thought that far ahead yet. Stay tuned!

Finding My Why

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Do you ever have a moment when you leave school thinking, “What am I even doing? Why do I keep coming back here?” I’ve had a few of those lately. This work is hard, friends. I know you know this.

Last night I dreamed that I had an office job, and that I loved every little bit of it. I’ve had office jobs, and I know I’m using rose-colored glasses when I look back on them, but the idea of closing my door and checking off my to-do list like a champ is appealing. Leaving work not consumed by the defeat and brokenness that often comes with little humans sounds downright Heavenly. In my dream, it was. I woke up shaking my head at why I (or anyone) would return to this work that is so hard on the mind and hard on the heart.

And then I checked my email. I don’t know Sue from Warrawong, Australia (and I hope she won’t mind my sharing this). What I do know is that she gave me my why today.



Under Construction

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Hi friends!

I hope you had fabulous holidays full of lots of little moments that turn into big memories. If you started back to work this week like I did, well, I’m sure you’ll catch up on your sleep very soon. 😉

I wanted to let you know that I have FINALLY found an website-building program that I like as much as iWeb, so I will be rebuilding my site from scratch over the next couple of weeks. You may see blank pages and “under construction” text during that time, but I hope you’ll be patient with me. My biggest hope in this move (and the only reason I’m willing to start over) is that I will update more often since I can use this program on my laptop, and not just on my desktop. I promise to put all of your favorite content back up as soon as I possibly can. Thank you so much for you patience!


I Love Legos!

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You guys, I think I’ve mentioned a few (or a hundred) times that I’m not so good at the consistent blogging thing. I’ll get in a good swing where I’m posting every few weeks, and that usually lasts oh, I don’t know….a few weeks, maybe?

My inconsistent posting is not for lack of wanting to share great stuff with y’all, nor is it due to a lack of great stuff to share. It’s just that this blog isn’t staring me in the face quite like the pile of books I’ve been dying to read or my almost-full DVR or my never-ending list of silly errands. (Cross one off. Write two more. Story of my life.)

But today, after WAY too long, I’m finally making time to tell you about some totally fabulous products that Lego Education sent me last year. (Yes. An actual year ago. Those errands are never ending, man!)

I have to first brag about the great staff at the Lego Education offices. (I don’t know if they sit in cubicles made of Duplo bricks or if their desks are grown-up Lego tables just waiting for creations, but I kind of hope it’s both.) They reached out to me so long ago and have been nothing but kind and patient as I’ve spent a year trying out the products they sent me with various groups of children (and more than a few adults) for a solid year. Thank you for all of your help, Lego Education friends!

Also, I feel like now is a good time to mention a few disclaimers:

1. I’ve been approached about a few product plugs in the last couple of years, but none of them has made me as excited as an opportunity to partner with Lego. I grew up with mountains of Lego bricks at my disposal, the bulk of which are still seeing playtime at my mom’s house.

2. I’m kind of an old-school Lego fan. These teeny tiny things that come with specific directions for building the Death Star are cool in their own right, but I’m a purist who doesn’t like to be told what to do. Classic Lego bricks are my jam. No directions necessary. You want a tower? You got it. A corral for all of your Lego farm animals? Coming right up!

All of that being said, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the products that I received. Lego Education sent me two sets designed for preschool students. (By the way, I’ve seen these sets fully engage students as old as third grade.)

The Playground Set

This set is designed for a small group or partners in centers. This is to encourage collaboration and language skills as they build, and boy do they collaborate! There are pictures to guide them, but there are tons of ways to set the playground up, and the majority of kiddos I worked with didn’t consult the pictures at all.
There are so many opportunities for cross-curricular discussion here. The hopscotch pieces support number recognition and counting. The mini-figures brought out so many discussions of who might go to a playground and whether any of them were grown-ups. (They are all the same size.) This set also encourages some hands-on problem solving. How will you build your dream playground? Why did you put those structures together? The possibilities are truly endless!
The Creative Builder Set:

Remember how I said I’m a Lego purist who doesn’t like to be bound by directions? Well, this set proved me wrong. It comes with two-sided picture cards that snap into a special tray with building mats on either side. Students can work on either side of the tray to try to recreate the picture before them. I can’t even tell you what a favorite this was with the kids! Just a few learning opportunities I noticed were number and counting skills, pattern identification/repetition, and use of position words (on top of, next to, etc.) in conversation. You could even have older students use the picture cards to guide each other to build a design blind – you know they’d love that!

I just absolutely love these products, friends, and so do the kids that have learned with them this year. But don’t take my word for it – check out the Lego Education site for yourself. They are constantly coming up with new ideas (probably because those cubicles made from Duplo bricks inspire them so much). You won’t regret it!

Hope you’re having the most wonderful summer!


Why I Can’t Just Be Fired

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Earlier today, in the throes of spelling-induced temper tantrum, a student asked me, “Why can’t you just be fired?!?”

(Allow me to take a brief sidebar here to thank God for giving me a pretty stellar filter. It sometimes takes a long time for words to make it from my brain to my mouth, and today, that was a good thing. Today, that quite possibly saved my job.)

I responded with something along the lines of “Because I do my work, and people who do their work do not get fired.” (Don’t let the punctuation fool you. Those were my words, but I was not that calm.) I was, for a moment, annoyed at the tantrum. I’d had enough of the whining. Then I pulled some empathy out of my back pocket (I always keep a little there for emergencies) and put myself in this little guy’s shoes. I get it, dude. I know that frustrated feeling. And honestly, I see your point. Firing me would have, in that moment, given me just as much relief as it would’ve given you. Thanks for thinking of me.

And now that I’ve had some time to reflect on the day (and the week, and the longest February in recorded history), I have a few thoughts about why I can’t “just be fired” – and why you can’t either.

Teaching is hard, y’all. We all know it. I’ve written about it before. It’s brutal, butt-kicking work, and it’s not the teaching part. It’s the other stuff. The stuff we can’t fix but really, really want to anyway. The stuff we think about when sleep eludes us at 3am. It. is. hard. So why do we do it? Why does anyone with an ounce of love for themselves sign up for this job? And why do we stay? Why can’t we just be fired?

Because we’re needed. I’m needed. You are SO needed. Great teachers are leaving the field at an alarming rate. 40 to 50 percent of teachers will leave teaching in their first five years. (9.5% of those are gone before they even make it through the first one.) Studies have confirmed this, but none that I’ve found have really put a finger on why. It’s definitely not due to a lack of talent or ambition, and it’s not always a lack of training or support. I think maybe it’s because you don’t know how very needed you are. And THAT, my friends, keeps me up at night. Because if not you, who? Who will do this extremely important work of training up future generations to carry on a functioning society?

I was filling half-empty water bottles with glitter glue earlier this week and thought, “I have two college degrees, and this is what I’m doing with them?” I have friends who’ve told me about similar feelings when they cut out piles and piles of laminated items or staple blank booklets together for writing workshop. Certainly, anyone can do this. Why does it need to be me? How about I go do something that lets me sleep at night and leave my laminated stack for someone else? I pass a billboard every day that says, “Want to teach? When can you start?” Let that guy come staple these booklets together. Can he start tomorrow?

The minutia is what wears us down, what sends us running for the hills, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not enough for you to just be fired. It’s not enough for you to throw in the towel. It’s enough to make you crazy, but please, please, don’t let it be enough to make you leave. As February comes to a close, take a minute to remind yourself of the reasons why you came here, and for the love, please remind yourself of all of the reasons to stay.

Seconds after today’s temper tantrum ended, that same student FINALLY finished his work and said, “Hmm. I thought I was bad at this, but I guess I’m not.”

Ditto, buddy. Ditto.